Butlin's Beachcomber Bar in Filey

Butlin’s Beachcomber Bars: UK’s Colorful ’60s Tiki Holiday History

butlins-old

In the United Kingdom, there is a chain of “holiday camps,” called Butlin’s. They were built in the 1930s and ’40s, as an affordable way for your average British family to get away for a vacation. Honesty time: when I look at old pictures of the Butlin’s holiday camps, to my eyes, they look bleak. I can easily imagine taking a life-changing, wonderful vacation in the United Kingdom, but not at these places. They just do not look like a pleasant or interesting place to spend time. They look like bare-bones military barracks, and it’s hard to imagine them being a step up from just staying home. As a matter of fact, they were used as emergency wartime housing for displaced Britons during World War II. Wheeeee.

A Butlin’s camp makes an appearance in The Who’s 1975 film Tommy, though not by that name. It’s where Ann-Margaret hooks up with Oliver Reed.

Thankfully, the remaining Butlin’s camps have been updated, and the modern incarnations look much more cozy than the old 20th century Butlin’s. If anyone can give a positive first-person experience with these places back in the day, please do clue me in. What were they like? I would love to learn my impressions are wrong.

UPDATE! My friend Steve Coulson tells me:

I visited many of those Butlins camps as a child. Happy memories, best holidays of my life, so I can definitely refute your supposition that they were bleak. Wonderful atmosphere, with many activities and things to do, like a British version of Disneyland, I visited an updated Butlins a couple of years ago and they’re not a patch on the originals.

Butlin's in Ayr, with A-frame entrance to the Beachcomber Bar
Butlin’s in Ayr, with A-frame entrance to the Beachcomber Bar
Butlin's Beachcomber Bar in Filey
Butlin’s Beachcomber Bar in Filey

Sad boxy bland institutional accommodations aside, Butlin’s once did provide a weird escape, Polynesian Pop style: their Butlin’s Beachcomber Bars. London had just seen its first wave of the Polynesian Pop craze thanks to The Beachcomber at the May Fair Hotel. Butlin’s wanted to cash in on the craze, and they nicked the name and concept for bars at six of the Butlin’s camps: Ayr, Bognor, Minehead, Skegness, Filey and Barry Island. Compared with other tiki bars of the day, they have a more psychedelic, swinging ’60s UK feel to them, with bright colors and fantastic scenery. While the camps they were in looked boooooring, by contrast, these bars look like the set of H.R. Pufnstuf.

Butlin's Beachcomber Bar in Skegness
Butlin’s Beachcomber Bar in Skegness
Butlin's Beachcomber Bar in Ayr
Butlin’s Beachcomber Bar in Ayr

Thanks to many vintage postcard contributions from Dustycajun, along with contributions of other items from Kohalacharms, blue.octopus and Liz Blackshaw, Critiki has some awfully fun pictures of the Butlin’s bars—be sure to look at all the listings in Critiki to see the images in great, big, beautiful color. Sadly, Critiki doesn’t have pictures of the Barry Island location. That one, though it was billed as “the largest bar in Europe” when it opened in 1966, burned down just two years later. The other Beachcomber Bars closed over the years, and all are now long gone. Maybe Butlin’s should bring them back. Then I’d have to visit.

Here’s a rare chance to see a Butlin’s Beachcomber Bar in action: this is a British Pathe film taken at the Butlin’s Beachcomber Bar in Skegness in 1964. It shows a hula contest between young ladies vacationing at the resort, and there’s even a demonstration of the Beachcomber Bar’s storm special effects at the end.

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